The Cleveland Browns walked into Sunday's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers knowing they were going to be without defensive linemen Phil Taylor and Billy Winn.
The team couldn't have predicted what would happen next.
Longtime starter Ahtyba Rubin aggravated his ankle in practice during the week and was a late scratch from 46-man game day roster. And on the second series of the game, young stud Armonty Bryant suffered a gruesome injury to his knee and was seen on crutches after the game.
Putting it nicely, the Browns' defensive line was depleted by injuries … well at least on paper, it should have been.
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"To me," coach Mike Pettine said on Friday, "the true measure of a coach is how his backups play when they're in there, and this week will be a good test to that."
So Ishmaa'ily Kitchen and John Hughes were inserted into the lineup, and they did not play like backups against the Steelers.
Kitchen had an eye-opening six tackles, plugging the middle like a chord in an outlet. Hughes was borderline outstanding. He was a constant force as a pass rusher, applying pressure to make Ben Roethlisberger misfire on several throws.
Maybe even more notably, Hughes held the point of attack in the run game, containing Le'Veon Bell to just 82 yards on the ground. Even though Pettine indicated the Browns were purposely giving the Steelers some room to operate in the run game, Hughes was there to slam the hammer when plays presented themselves. Hughes finished with only one tackle, but his impact was everywhere.
"We got in the quarterbacks head," said Hughes in the locker room after the game. "It's a really great win and to top it off, it's against the Steelers. I'm proud of the whole defense."
Even with more attention being paid to him than normal, fellow defensive lineman Desmond Bryant also posted his best outing of the season – three tackles and a clutch third-quarter sack on Roethlisberger that knocked the Steelers out of field goal range.
"It's huge," said Bryant about the win. "It's a division win so it counts twice. It's Pittsburgh. So we cherish these kind of moments. We'll enjoy it [on Sunday] and then it's on to Jacksonville on Monday."
Bryant brought up a good points we visited this in our column from Sunday night: the Browns just went out there and played loose. Defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil said last Thursday that was a big point of emphasis during practice and it was visible on the field against the Steelers.
It appears Bryant may miss some significant time – we will know more later on Monday from Pettine's press conference. Taylor is still recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery that he had last Wednesday and Winn's quad is an injury that requires patience.
Performances like this from Bryant, Kitchen and Hughes prove what Pettine has said all along: we love our depth at defensive line.